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15 Creative Light Trail Photography Ideas

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Related course: Simply Stunning Landscapes

Light trails are a great way to utilise a long exposure. These are mainly captured during night photography, as the scene has much less light. This allows you to keep your shutter open for longer.
You can capture these in the daytime too, but you will need extra equipment, such as a neutral density filter.
Light trails will help your scene in many ways. They can add light to a low lit scene, allowing you to photograph an area to make it more interesting. Additionally, they can give you a sense of movement within a still image.
Light trails show urban sprawl and social commentary on how we live our lives. The night sky can also become incorporated into your scenes, looking at moving stars and the milky way to add more interest.
If you feel that your light trail photography is starting to look the same, these 15 creative light trail ideas will light your path.
Photo of a light trail of a road going into the snowy mountains at night with a starry sky above

15. Double Exposure

One great way to use your light trails is to incorporate it into another scene. Layering of images on top of each other is how you create a double exposure.
This can take place during the post-editing stage, through the use of Photoshop or some modern cameras have this option built in.
The light trails provide an interesting texture, shape and colour to any image that you choose to mix it with. The light trail is easy enough to capture, where a long exposure will take the light from any night time scene.
For help on how to create one of these images, check our article on double exposure.

A beautiful double exposure photograph of a yellow flower surrounded by light trails

14. Light Up Your Scene

Light trails add light to a scene in an interesting way. Why not use one to light-up a street that lacks any serious light. There are always cars and buses roaming around every city street, and this could add that source you need.
Do some scouting beforehand and make sure the scene will work well. Cobbled streets add an interesting texture, and the image would benefit from some juxtaposition of old vs. new or technology vs. stone age. Get it?
Atmospheric cobblestone street view at night with a stream of light trails shooting down the road.

13. Star Trails

The night sky has always been a fascination for us humans. To reach for the unknown is both physically and metaphorically possible. By using a long exposure of the night sky, you can capture some beautiful results.
Here, the earth moves at 1,000 mph, which gives the impression that the stars are speeding across our night sky. This scene will show the movement of these majestic beasts, adding interest to the sky and any setting.
For help on how to create these, read our article on star trails.
A fantastic long exposure shot of the night sky with a circle of blue start trails

12. Abstract

Abstract photography is the act of creating an image that isn’t (immediately or otherwise) recognisable. Light trails are a great way to create an abstract image, and you can do this in a number of ways.
Different light sources will give you different shapes and patterns, adding interest to your shot.
One way to do this is to create a long exposure while you throw your camera in the air. the shutter stays open while your camera twists and turns mid-throw. Be careful with this, and keep your equipment safe by not throwing it too high.
Another option would be to move your camera around a well-lit scene, so the blurriness strips the image of anything identifiable. You could also take a still image and blur out the whole scene, just letting the long exposure pick up the moving light.
Strips of blurry white and red light trails on black background

11. Funfairs

Funfairs are great. They not only provide fun and entertainment for the whole family, but they work well with long exposures. Think about it. They use a lot of lights as they are usually better experienced at night-time.
In this scene, there are many moving objects, such as the Ferris Wheel, and they are all well lit. Creating a long exposure of a turning Ferris Wheel will create a very interesting image. The open shutter will allow the lights to make long strokes of light.
A moving Ferris wheel at night with multi colored light trails

10. Milky Way

The Milky Way is a great addition to any scene. Landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes all benefit from a milky way draped above it.  It is tricky to capture, but we have you covered in our article here.
One thing you need to consider is the placement of the milky way during different times of the year. You may find that your particular scene might not have a great composition of the milky way.
Preplanning, organisation and the use of these apps will help your milky way shot immensely.
A road illuminated by light trails running through a snowy landscape under a fantastic night sky filled with stars.

9. Landscape

Landscape images can really work well with a long exposure light trail shot. It is one great way to light up a scene that otherwise would be very difficult to capture.
It also adds some definition to the shot, showing paths and roads through winding hills, plains and vegetation.
The light adds colour, texture, shapes and form. It also creates interesting compositions that can lead your eye through the image. Leading and diagonal lines work well here, as does the juxtaposition of man-made objects vs a natural setting.
A winding road illuminated by light trails running through a magnificent mountainous landscape in low light

8. Rockets

This is a creative light trail idea that many of us will not have the possibility of photographing. But, if you are in a location or can get to the firing of a rocket, this would create an amazing light trail.
Set up the tripod to allow you to compose your image in an interesting way, incorporating the scene. Imagine where the rocket will go. It never goes straight up entirely, as research will show you, travelling along a curve instead.
A curve of light trails made by a rocket, shooting from a beach landscape into the night sky

7. Aerial

Aerial photography is relatively new. Drones are the newest addition, but shooting from planes and helicopters is also possible. Photographing a light trail scene from the sky is a very interesting way to show a scene.
This could be done above a city, showing a busy intersection, or hovering above a small country road. Both offer a unique and interesting view as it is a perspective that many of us are not familiar with.
For all the help you need in using drones, see our article here.
A road illuminated by light trails running taken from directly overhead by a drone

6. Daytime Light Trails

Most light trails take place at night, but they are still possible in the daytime. The factor here, which makes it tricky to work with, is the abundance of light.
Having a well-lit scene means that extra care and planning needs to take place, as a long exposure creates an overexposed image.
Here, try using a neutral density filter to cut down the light. These are available in many different stops, and allow you to create a long exposure in the daytime.
Choose your scene correctly and look for areas with a high volume of traffic and a high speed limit.
Traffic moving in a blur of light trails through a busy city

5. Cityscapes & Traffic

Cityscapes and traffic are a great way to show light trails. This is one of the most popular was to capture light trails as they are readily available. If you want to show the traffic and the cityscape in the same shot, find a high vantage point. A bridge is perfect.
These light trails have the capacity to draw your eyes from the edge of the frame towards the city. They tend to show two different colours, white and red. The white lights are from cars leaving, and the red ones are from those entering.
A motorway illuminated by yellow and red light trails

4. Solitary Car

In the opposition of showing the ebb and flow of heavy traffic, a single car works even better. This gives us the chance to focus on one line, twisting and turning along its route.
The light trails here show movement in a still image, showing the viewer where the object is coming from.
It can be tricky to capture one car on its own, so look to smaller roads. You may even find that photographing outside sociable hours helps to capture those single moving objects. Compose your scene correctly, to ensure you are ready when the time comes.
The white light trails of a solitary car running through a tunnel

3. Side-on Street Scene

A basic street scene is a perfect place to capture light trails. A side-on perspective allows you to place something architectural as the focus of the scene. A building, statue or monument is the perfect object to place in the middle of your scene.
Here, the light trail passes between you and the object, giving the image some definition, light and a little abstraction. Most images of light trails show the light leading of into the distance.
This creative light trail idea is an easy way to show them, and a breath of fresh air to similarily composed images.
A line of light trails in front of a building at night

2. In Car Perspective

One really interesting way to show light trails is by moving your camera very fast. So far, we have only looked at keeping your camera still while lit objects move around a scene. This adds a new take on light trail photography.
Having your camera inside a car, tram, train or even bike allows the foreground to stay nice and still, but the background moves. This creates an interesting juxtaposition and really gives you the impression of movement in a still image.
Lines of colored light trails taken from the backseat of a car

1. Zoom Burst

The zoom burst is an interesting concept. The idea is that you place your camera on a tripod, and as you capture a scene, you either zoom in or out while the shutter is open.
This quickly changes the setting from a wide perspective to a narrow one. Or vice versa.
This can be a great way to give focus to something in particular, as this method keeps the centre in focus. The lights and objects on the edges of the frame will move more, giving a ghostly effect.
When characters in a sci-fi film jump to hyper space, this is what it looks like.

An impressive burst of light trails shooting out from a bridge at night
Jakob Wagner
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